For Vessels of Memory at the Manresa Gallery, Arturo Araujo does not answer questions, but instead prompts dialogue. Araujo’s skillful and sometimes difficult work is unique in its capacity to connect to the audience via aesthetic, spiritual, political, cultural, and emotional pathways. The work nuances and expands upon our relationship with the natural environment, pointing to contemporary religious, political, and cultural practices.
Located within Saint Ignatius Church, Manresa Gallery occupies four alcoves that had previously housed confessionals. It is separated from the church proper by glass doors, constantly presenting itself to tourists, students, and churchgoers. In the late afternoon, sunlight flows through the church’s west-facing stained glass windows, layered with the light cascading from the golden domes that top each alcove. Here, Vessels of Memory realizes a space to mourn and celebrate the departed, providing an opportunity for genuine community building.
Arturo Araujo – an artist, Jesuit priest, and professor of Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco (USF) – is a generous and thoughtful artist, who employs a wide range of media. While Araujo primarily works in printmaking, he also uses digital media, interactive installation, painting, sound, and ceramics. Araujo was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, where he joined the Jesuit Order in 1986, and served in several Colombian parishes. He moved to the United States in 2001, earning his BA, BFA, and MFA degrees. Much of his work deals with the violence and imaginations of Colombian social-political and cultural reality. He often uses repetition and layering techniques, especially when working with imagery of landscapes in Colombia. By multiplying the possibilities of images that can be repeated and layering them on top of each other, the landscape becomes layers of different media, as he mimics an obsessive, grieving memory.
Three cylindrical objects rest at the back of the first alcove, rising above the ceramic vessels in front of them. They are inspired by Aboriginal death poles, used, in some tribal practices, to hold the bones of the dead and mark sacred space. Arturo’s poles are titled I Need Someone to Pour Myself Into –Sylvia Plath, and are decorated with undulating designs of dots - guides for a journey after death. Children’s faces look out from mesmerizing patterns. These are particularized portraits of children who have disappeared and been murdered as a result of armed conflict in Colombia, though they can serve as links to all children affected by violences.
A final peace agreement between the FARC (Fuerza Revolucionarias de Colombia), a guerrilla movement involved since 1964, and the Colombian government, was signed on November 24, 2016. The country remains divided in support of the peace deal, as Colombia moves forward with reintegration of FARC members into civilian society, starting with gradual disarmament of FARC members. The peace agreement signed in November does not indicate an end to violence in Colombia, though it is an important cessation of one institution that caused horror, pain, death, murder, and displacement in the country over the past five decades.
One factor in the negotiations is a lack of reparation imparted to the loved ones of those who were murdered, and those who disappeared and were dismissed by the state. With the faces on the vessel, Arturo marks the loss of these children and thousands of others who have disappeared. The painted dots that move up and down the pole offer a pathway of hope.
A wheel subtly protrudes from one pole. When turned, a music box inside the cylinder slowly plays to the tune of “It’s a Small World,” a song written for the famed Disneyland attraction that features over 300 animatronic dolls dressed in traditional costumes from around the world. Repetitive and simple in composition, this irritating tune unwontedly gets stuck in the mind. Written in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the song’s message promotes peace and global unity (while being easily translated and played in round). It speaks to the continued presence of great historical violences occurring in various geopolitical places.
Inside the gallery, the air moves slowly; it provides a stillness as counterpart to the sounds and ceramic works it cradles. The tune is surprisingly welcome in this air, as the notes linger crisply as they ring. This artwork presents a seemingly unending cyclical structure that appears in global patterns of violence. But remember, turning the wheel is voluntary.
Arturo and his students from USF and the Instituto Hispano  at Santa Clara University (in Silicon Valley) created a collaborative installation of seed pots, which have been used for thousands of years in various Native American traditions to preserve the best and strongest seeds of the season’s harvest. In clay pots, the seeds may be saved for the next planting.
Visitors are welcome to write down a seed of wisdom that they have received, roll up the piece of paper, and place it in one of the many small pots placed around the gallery. Arturo is generous with his work, allowing visitors to touch, to feel: one can pick the pots up, and choose which one will hold their piece of wisdom. Together, participants create a communal seed bank of cherished thoughts and hopes that we keep for those who follow.
Vessels of Memory does not fail to acknowledge animal life that has been lost. In 2013, the Jesuit Pope Francis published his second encyclical, a periodic announcement from the pope to Catholics , Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home. In it, Pope Francis critiques global warming, irresponsible development, and consumerism, calling all people of the world to take action. The artist references the encyclical to expand on an earthly tradition that runs through his work. For the installation, Arturo suspends thirty-five clay bird houses from a frame that mirrors the gallery’s architectural dome. The chirping of the extinct, Hawaiian ōō (pronounced “oh-oh”) bird surrounds the visitor, flowing over into the adjacent alcoves and body of the church. The melodic bird calls emphasize the emptiness of these nests – this species has been gone for over twenty years.
This work welcomes the human body into the space: the audience is already forgiven for the destruction of the ōō species, and offered a seat in the center of the installation. This stump-like seat provides a spot to reflect, listen, and write in a notebook, made by the artist. The entries left by visitors are moving, discussing abstract and personal losses, sometimes addressed directly to the deceased. One entry states, “the void itself calls to the bereaved bird, as to us, from beyond the groping of rational material…” This work reaches into and through the rational, to touch the real.
Furthering his artistic practice and continuing to focus on the natural environment and memory, Araujo will take a sabbatical next year to conduct sustained research in ceramics in native culture in Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, and the United States. Furthermore, he will investigate a non-toxic alternative to lithography as a part of residencies in Berkeley and Mexico.
Vessels of Memory presents a myriad of particular, political, social, ecological, and spiritual contemplations. It takes its viewers out of their daily reveries and activities, to connect one to a global community - one of mourning. These vessels serve as an acknowledgement of abstract and actual deaths (those that have occurred, and those that will). These works mark great and violent loss, but do not contain it. One will return again and again to the absence.
Vessels of Memory: Earth Sounds in the Work of Arturo Araujo, SJ is on view October 30, 2016 - February 26, 2017.
Manresa Gallery (inside Saint Ignatius Church)
650 Parker Ave (at Fulton St.)
San Francisco, CA 94118
Thursday and Friday 1 - 5 pm, and Sunday 9am - 2 pm between Masses.
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Apart from his work at USF, Araujo also serves as a professor at the Instituto Hispano (Hispanic Institute), a program of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. The Instituto provides Spanish-language classes, training pastoral leaders in theological education. ↩
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The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Jesuit.” Encyclopædia Britannica. November 25, 2015. Accessed January 16, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Jesuits.
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